The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Harper Collins, 2021) by Dean Jobb is an excellent and comprehensive historical true crime narrative that integrates the crimes of one man into a social, political, and cultural context. Historically rich and shockingly poignant, Jobb’s text is not one to miss.
The book recounts the life and crimes of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream (1850 – 1892). A Scottish-Canadian medical doctor-turned-serial killer, Dr. Cream’s crimes span over many years and several countries. For detectives at the time, and for Jobb now, untangling the circumstances of Cream’s crimes and his motives is no easy task. Cream was notorious for causing the poisoning deaths of several women in Canada, the United States, and Britain. He also had, according to Jobb, a strange penchant for committing murder and then sending anonymous blackmail letters to prominent political, literary, and medical figures in London, threatening to blame them for the murders. As Jobb notes in his book, the women Cream poisoned were often women he was in a position of power over as both a Victorian man and a doctor. However, Jobb points out that Cream did not commit his crimes without a certain lack of institutional oversight. Cream had an ability to manipulate the imperfect systems of the law in order to secure the poisons he required and to flee from one country to the next.
What I particularly enjoyed about this book was its comprehensive attention to detail. As Jobb writes in the early pages,
“none of the dialogue, scenes, or details have been invented or embellished. Every word enclosed in quotation marks is drawn from a court or police file; a newspaper report, memoir, or historical study; or a letter or other document preserved in an archive or museum. Wording and spellings within quotations have been preserved, uncorrected, so the past can speak to the present.”
Jobb’s dedication to presenting things as they were is admirable, and he is certainly able to paint a vivid picture of both Dr. Cream’s crimes and life in late-nineteenth-century England/Canada through records alone. In weaving a web of connections, Jobb points out that Cream’s crimes did not occur in a vacuum.
As the dangers of certain pharmaceuticals such as arsenic or strychnine became more widely known, Cream was killing during a time when the purchase of these substances was becoming more regulated and policed. He was also a criminal and an inmate in a United States prison during the rise of criminology, when French police were developing and implementing theories around cataloging and identifying repeat offenders. Travel between countries had never been easier. Moving from one place to another—and changing identities as easy as one might change clothes—almost guaranteed a fresh start. Cream was also a doctor, and medical practice, including medical training, is the partial subject of Jobb’s book. Where Cream would have learned and understood the manner of death he was inflicting upon these women is significant for Jobb. And of course, no spectre looms larger in 1880s and 90s London than Jack the Ripper. Jobb integrates Cream’s crimes, as well as the public’s obsession with murder and mayhem in the press, with other famous nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century deaths that shocked the nation. The comprehensive and thorough nature of Jobb’s book is part of what makes it so compelling—it serves as a full picture of nineteenth-century London and I encourage anyone who is interested in this history to read this book.
Another aspect of Jobb’s book that I was particularly interested in was its attention to the circumstances of the victims. While Jobb does not belabour this point, he does acknowledge that
“the pervasive sexism and inequality of the times isolated prostitutes and pregnant, unwed women alike, relegating them to the margins of society. Women came to Cream for an illegal abortion, or seeking medicine too induce a miscarriage, to escape the stigma … of having a child out of wedlock. Poverty, unemployment, and the limited opportunities available for unmarried women drove or lured other women into prostitution. … in Cream’s twisted mind, however, prostitutes were not just offensive or immoral. They were less than human …. Behind the names of each of Cream’s known or suspected female victims was a story of hardship, struggle, or despair.”
Jobb identifies the social and cultural power dynamics that influenced both Cream’s ability to commit his crimes for so many years and the status of his victims. Furthermore, Jobb takes this discussion further. Although Cream’s crimes were not the vicious, deeply personal violence that we might see in the Jack the Ripper case, Jobb points out that this does not mean the crimes are any less motivated by a hatred of women and marginalized people, and that Cream’s crimes are still important to remember today.
“Serial killers continue to target those living on the margins— sex workers, the homeless, transients, drug addicts, teenage runaways. Many lead lives filled with desperation an risk, and their lifestyles make them worry of the police and vulnerable to attack. If they disappear— and assuming there is anyone to report the disappearance—police may have few leads to go on an little incentive to investigate. … Cream’s shocking crimes resonate in a time when murderous predators still lurk in the shadows and in a culture obsessed, like that of our Victorian ancestors, with tales of crime and detection.”
Employing Steven A. Egger’s theory of the “less-dead” (The Killers Among Us: Examination of Serial Murder and Its Investigations 1997), Jobb relates it back to Cream’s victims and the society they lived in. Jobb’s interest in connecting the past to the present through his detailed history, accurate representation of events, and contemporary connections makes The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream a must-read.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A copy of this book was graciously provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.